Before antibiotics and immunization, infectious diseases were terrifying killers, and there wasn't much we could do about it, outside of separating the sick from the healthy in hopes that the disease would not spread further. To this end, New York City opened the New York Marine Hospital on Staten Island in 1799, which most people called the Quarantine. No one was happy about it. The sick were held against their will, the employees risked their lives to care for them, and the neighbors wanted the facility gone.
During the 1850s, two million immigrants arrived in New York City, and some of them were beset with the contagious diseases shipboard-confinement fostered: yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, typhus (or “ship fever”). A single case of yellow fever aboard a ship could put all the passengers and crew under quarantine for as long as six months. There could be as many as eight thousand patients in the Quarantine over the course of a year. Before vaccines, as Stephenson notes, it was dangerous work for the staff: “Funeral expenses for employees was a category in the accounting books.”
Locals never liked the Quarantine. Disease outbreaks on the island were blamed on the facility and the quarantined ships anchored off-shore. In 1848, Staten Islanders petitioned the state to remove the facility. The state agreed, but plans to move the facility to the other end of the island were thwarted by repeated arson attacks on the construction site.
By 1858, the people of Staten Island had had enough, and set out to destroy the hospital on their own. Read about the storming of the Quarantine and the motives behind it at Jstor. -via Damn Interesting